By: Najm Hosain Syed

(From his Book: Recurrent Patterns In Punjabi Poetry)


Farid's position as the first known Punjabi poet is a matter of curiosity as well as reassurance. The saintly Bawa Sahib (1173-1266A.D.) stands at the far end of Punjabi poetic tradition in an eminent isolation. Nearly three centuries pass before another figure of any status relieves the curious blank.

Farid's renown as a mystic enhances his isolation as a poet. There is, around the Bawa Sahib, a halo of revered legends - a halo, which sometimes seems to touch his poetry and absorb it into itself, and sometimes to focus on the more popular aspects of sainthood and leave out poetry entirely. The curious student of history may follow the arbitrary movements of this legendary halo and strain his eyes between frustrating darkness and suddenly vanishing promises of light.

But paradoxically this isolation of Farid the poet does not, in the larger perspective of the tradition of Punjabi poetry appear to indicate any jolting discontinuity. Once equipped with this perspective we see in Farid a near kin of the later lyric writers and narrative poets. Indeed, if we could rest content with our present knowledge of history, he appears the first manifestation of certain recurrent patterns through which the tradition in Punjabi poetry works. Not that the later poets consciously followed any precepts or precedents left by Farid in matters of technique and choice of subje6.t. The integral relation between Farid and those who follow him at an apparently improbable distance of three centuries could be clearly comprehended only by realizing the nature and working of a poetic tradition.

The commonly prevalent notion of poetic tradition is that of a body of defined principles, and accepted practices, concerning the more obvious aspects of poetic art. Tradition in this sense is thought to take a concrete shape at an early stage in the hands of masters and then passed down to posterity who are to follow it to the detail with meticulous fidelity. This distorted view of tradition and its relation to poetry at any given moment results in the development of a conventionalized idiom. As the poets assiduously imitate the idiom of their predecessors preserving sanctity of old technical modes, they identify the word tradition with the tyranny of certain images, words and rhythms. This tyranny is hard to resist-by their daily surrender the poets continue to authenticate and perpetuate it. They are forced to exercise their ingenuity within the scope offered by these words, images and rhythms.

This commonly prevalent view of tradition is scarcely helpful in appreciating Farid's relation with later poets. Using an old analogy, poetry is the changing, developing foliage, tradition the sap that issues from the past. Tradition to the poet at any particular moment manifests itself in a series of recurrent patterns in the work of the poets before him. These recurrent patterns have corresponding patterns in the consciousness of the people to which the poetry belongs. Poetic tradition thus is a dynamic factor that asserts itself on its own, interpreting the present through its present shape and assuming fresh shapes with every new moment. It is in this latter sense of the word tradition that, we find Farid skipping the disconcerting lapse of ages to sit in the company of seventeenth and eighteenth century "Kafi" poets like Shah Hussain and Bulleh Shah. One should not, however, hasten to the conclusion that F arid and the later poets have many overt resemblances - for such resemblances would only prove the presence of the static conception of tradition mentioned earlier. As an individual poet, Farid is temperamentally distinct from either Hussain or Bulleh Shah.

The poetry of Farid consists mainly of "Dohras." A Dohra as used by Farid is a rhymed couplet. Each of the lines generally has a caesura, the significance of which varies according to the meaning. The Dohra is a complete and self-sufficient unit unless, as on rare occasions, it is followed by a complementary couplet. Usually one of the lines of the Dohra bears the name of F arid.

The distinguishing feature of Farid's Dohra is an austerity of tone, which marks the rhythm. Here is a well-known couplet:

"Laden with my load of misdeeds, I move about in the garb of black garments. And the people see me and call a dervish."

The austerity of rhythm here borders on abstemiousness. The evenness of movement is assured by balancing the stresses, in each line. The austerity of rhythm is supported by a strikingly plain vocabulary. Farid here as usual aims at a deliberate ordinariness in his words. He strives at a total denudation of structure, a jealous colorlessness of presentation. But the austerity and plainness in the structure of the verse have a remarkable role to play in relation to what the poet has to say. The passivity induced by the evenness of rhythm is suddenly shattered when the last part of the second line - "and people call me a dervish" - clinches the meaning, putting the rest of the verse in an intense blend of irony and pathos. Black clothes worn by pious men as a sign of humility become associated in the minds of men with an undefined piety. Also, urge for a display of self-humiliation is associated with real inner nobility, and by exalting the man in black we vicariously exalt ourselves. But for poet his black wear symbolizes his erring self. Thus, ironically, what should expose serves to conceal. There is quality of haunting mockery in Farid's repetitive insistence on the word "black". The austerity of rhythm is the product of the poet's contemplating wisdom. The constantly underlying poise in the rhythm against changing shades of feelings represents the inner emotional strength derived of confidence in knowledge. The inner confidence is always present in the Dohras whether the poet strains to resolve a conflict or records an intensely painful experience. Farid's verses, as is often taken for granted, are not finished pieces turned out of the didactic aloofness of a seasoned teacher. The)' often are, within their diminutive compass, scenes of involvement. decision and repercussion.

"My promise with my love, a long way to go and a muddy lane ahead. If I move I spoil my cloak; if I stay I break my word."

The dramatic little scene presents a young woman hesitatingly poised between her inner self and the prudent cautioning of reputation. The nagging situation is summed up in three brief strokes forming the first line. It can be seen how very ordinary words have been significantly grouped together in the line - the first part posing the difficulty of the situation, the second stressing the urgency of going on. The second line again is divided into two balanced parts - in which two courses of action are weighed against each other. A moment of tension has been conveyed through extreme economy of touch. The economy in fact has been the instrument for sustaining the tension.

But the moment of resolution has to come and it does in the Dohra that follows:

"Drenched and smirched be the cloak; let God's cloud pour out all the waters: Go I must; I go to keep my word of love."

Here the tensely balanced phrases have been replaced by a freer distribution of stresses, The highly accentuated first line shows the violent breaking of tension, the firm removal of enervating caution, The second line with its exultantly open vowels marks the complete harmony of instinct and will. The moment of tension has given way to decision and resolution. The symbolic dimension of the scene opens out through the images of the "Kambli" (cloak) and the muddy lane. The "Kambli" is the external wear, seen by all as spotless representation of modesty; to the self conscious wearer it stands for superficial scruples - scruples that are compelling and potent in spite of being ultimately untenable. The street is the place where conventionally shared attitudes force the individual into allegiance, where mud can slander indiscriminately. It is noticeable how the images bear their symbolic content and yet retain their actuality through the drastic change of tone in the two couplets.

With all its flexibility the Farid Dohra retains its basic austerity of rhythm, its foundations resting on poise and serenity. These are scarcely ever disturbed in moments of psychological stress of which illustrations have been given. This inner placidity of rhythm is hot inherent in the form of the Dohra itself. As can be seen in examples from later poets the two-line Dohra could be put to extremely volatile uses. Here is one from Bulleh Shah:

"Drench yourself in wine and feast on roasted flesh, roasting on the fires flaming out of the bones. O Bullah, break into the house of God and swindle this cheat of cheats."

The passion of the poet's voice here has strained the rhythm to cracking point. The traditional caesura and other pauses appear as intervals in a chain of explosions, hurling rugged consonants against each other to bring out a mood of ecstatic ferocity.

The quality of Farid's rhythm, then, is not inherent in the form of the Dohra but is in fact a product of the poet's outlook. And Farid's outlook is uncompromisingly austere. At times he shows grimness but this never turns into a desperate gloom. Farid's is a sustained belief in the existence of meaningfulness and his austere reflectiveness in fact represents his unsparing effort to draw a line between the real and the superficial, the lasting and. the transient.

Farid's contemplating reflection as the major shaping force in his verse continuously plays against and controls his instinctive voice. The reflective note is initiated often by an address by the poet to himself. The use of his name is not an egotistical intrusion nor has it the decorative virtue of personal seal commonly employed by poets, The personal name is an identification of the poet's self with every man and a placing of the listener through this identification into a position of omniscience and objectivity.

The setting of Farid's verses takes place in the midst of his immediate experience, which is the daily experience of common man. The imagery is usually drawn from the busy working day of common living; the hum of associations from the sweat of the farmers or other working men is a subtly contrasting accompaniment for the almost abstemious aloofness of Farid's basic rhythm:

"Shout, Farid, shout like the watchful man in the corn-field; as long as the bushel does not mature and fall, shout on."

A veiled gravity in Farid's tone points to the real symbolic content of the couplet. As long as the man has not attained inner maturity he is required to keep utmost vigilance over himself. The vigilant shouting moreover represents the self-conscious publicizing of the fact of immaturity. The shouting, more than keeping the harm away, provides an outlet for the anxious mind of the watchman. As the ripened bushel is safely collected, the shouting ceases. As life draws towards its end and the jealously nurtured fruit of a fulfilled stay is gathered home, a contended silence begins to settle. Farid's image has brol1ght the process and its end into a single canvas. The image from the hectic field activity is made to co-operate with the steady voice of the sage.

From the briefly illustrated discussion of the Dohras it can be appreciated that Farid's poetry, while retaining its peculiar individuality, appropriately occupies the initial place in the tradition of Punjabi poetry. Farid's originality rests in his temperament and outlook; his verse can never be mistaken for that of any of the later poets, not on account of a difference in quality but because of a difference of character. And still the later poets will have ample justification in claiming him as their ancestor. We from our position can see in him the first appearance of those recurring patterns which inform the work of other major poets as the manifestations of the working of a tradition. As the foregoing analysis of verses would show, these pet terns can be identified in Farid's complete avoidance of the ornamental, in his use of various aspects of technique as parts of the larger whole of meaning, in his confidence in an obviously simple structure to express whatever levels of meanings he has to convey, in his use of the imagery of ordinary experience, in his dramatic economy in spite of a dominantly reflective bent, finally in his unswerving adoption of the central, the essential as his themes.

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